Last year, the Detroit Lions added a fitting coda to the most dysfunctional season in recent Packers history, knocking Aaron Rodgers out of the game and beating Green Bay down at Lambeau Field, 31-0. For the third straight season, the Lions and Packers faced off in Week 17 with no playoff berths on the line. Only this year, Matt LaFleur’s team brought its postseason spot and division title to the Motor City.
They left with a hard fought (and yes, ugly) 23-20 win and a first-round bye on the right arm of Aaron Rodgers in the second half and the capable, redemptive right leg of Mason Crosby.
Call it a hangover or apathy against a 3-11-1 team, but whatever it’s called, the Packers looked more like their 2018 and 2017 counterparts in an embarrassing start to the game. It featured inaccuracy from Aaron Rodgers, drops from Jimmy Graham and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and pathetic defensive effort, punctuated by a 40-yard run from rookie Ty Johnson to snag a field goal before half on a play where the Lions were simply trying to run out the clock.
After two quarters, the Packers were down 17-3 and their hopes of a first-round bye faded fast against a third-string quarterback and a team allergic to closing out wins all season. In games the Packers lost this season, particularly the two road contests in California, LaFleur’s team never got off the bus, looking listless and disengaged. With an emotional road win against the Vikings last week, it wasn’t surprising to see a letdown from a team with the North locked up, but to not even show up cannot be excused or explained away.
Rodgers tied the lowest first-half completion of his career with a flurry of off-target throws, most sailing high, including a crucial would-be touchdown to Aaron Jones at the end of the first half.
But unlike years past, mostly without Rodgers, Green Bay didn’t knuckle under thanks in large part to its quarterback catching a measure of fire.
A 95-yard drive culminating in a dime from Rodgers to Davante Adams drew the Packers to 17-10. After an exchange of field goals, Rodgers found Allen Lazard on a beautiful touchdown throw to tie the game. It was an about face for the two-time MVP, who finally found a rhythm with shorter passes, but hit the touchdown on shot plays. That formula, along with a season-high 10 receivers catching passes, forced the Packers back into the game.
With 1:20 left from the 17-yard line, Rodgers and Co. needed some points, any points, to book a ticket to a first-round bye. A dubious roughing penalty, a strike to Allen Lazard, and a beautiful 31-yard screen to Aaron Jones moved Green Bay into position for a Mason Crosby field goal. Of all the players to put an exclamation point on a redemptive season, it’s the player who missed four field goals and a PAT last season in an ugly loss in Detroit.
Rodgers broke a streak of seven games under 250 yards, putting up 323 with two touchdowns. His worst statistical mistake, the interception late in the fourth quarter, served as an arm punt and didn’t hurt the Packers nearly as badly as early-game misses. The plays were there for the Packers much of the game, but Rodgers simply couldn’t find the range.
Add a measure of redemption for Blake Martinez, the biggest fan whipping boy on this defense, for a second-half interception. The Packers turned that into a 28-yard strike to Lazard for the game-tying touchdown. It embodied the “win ugly, any man can be the game changer” mentality that led Green Bay to a 13-3 season. It’s also what leads to doubters, but the Packers won one game to win two, now missing the Wild Card weekend and a looming rematch with the rival Vikings.
The symmetry of capping this kind of season, the finest by a rookie head coach in team history, and one of the all-time great coaching debuts in the league, against the team who unceremoniously marked the end of the Mike McCarthy era cannot be missed. Although McCarthy’s tenure ended nearly a month earlier, his top lieutenant Joe Philbin took over as interim, a coach McCarthy brought in to revamp the offense. McCarthy lost his job in part because that task went unfulfilled.
Enter Matt LaFleur, as pedigreed a young coach as we had in the NFL, working under the Shanahan family, Sean McVay, and Gary Kubiak. LaFleur stood in front of the Packers team on Day 1 and told them even though they’d done things a certain way for a long time, it was time for a change. He injected new life into the team, empowering his players, stirring verve and projecting confidence through detail. Finishing a season this way, reminds us why LaFleur even had to be hired in the first place, the logical next step in the exorcising of coaching demons past.
The Packers didn’t need to win this game to justify a coaching change, or to validate an NFC North title. In some ways, that makes this win even more special. They didn’t need it, not with the division in hand, a home playoff game secured, and a healthy roster headed for January. Each of the last two years, the Lions came out and wiped the floor with the Packers to end the season in games they didn’t need.
This represents a small step toward recapturing the stranglehold the Packers had on this division for much of the Rodgers-McCarthy partnership. For a franchise hell-bent on getting back to the Super Bowl, the Rodgers-LaFleur legacy will be defined by what happens next, by what this team does in January. But we can’t forget how teams make it to the playoffs, how they set themselves up to succeed come postseason time: it takes 17 weeks of work.
Rodgers redeemed a dreadful first half. Mason Crosby redeemed a nightmare game. And the Packers redeemed a trying stretch of seasons of under-performance and failure. Credit to them, and credit their coach who turned things around in Green Bay. They personify this turnaround story.
With the coda on the regular season now played, this movement complete, it’s time for the next stanza, and unlike previous trips to Detroit, the Packers won’t leave singing the blues.